The Story of Cochineal 

For food and beverage manufacturers, it’s normal to focus our attention exclusively on the newest innovations due to constant industry changes. In regards to natural food color, spirulina and technology advances in purification might come to mind. But—it can be important, even strategic, to look back at colors that have been around since ancient civilizations.

The story of cochineal and carmine dates back to the 15th century. The crimson red natural color’s longevity is an indicator of its overall effectiveness. Here’s some fast facts on the centuries-old, sought after natural red:

  • 16th century Spanish emperors imported cochineal by the tons for elite clothing and furniture dye. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Walter Raleigh imported the largest haul of cochineal on record at 27 tons carried by three Spanish ships.
  • The infamous British wool “Red Coats” were dyed with cochineal in the 17th century by skilled Dutch dyers.
  • The history of and widespread use of cochineal is celebrated in a widely attended, traveling art exhibit, The Red That Colored the World.

Behind the Scenes of Cochineal and Carmine Production

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) are immobile scale insects native to tropical and subtropical South America, as well as Mexico and Arizona. These insects live on the pads of prickly pear cacti, feeding on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. Cochineal can damage and potentially kill their host cacti by draining all of its resources, and if they are not controlled, the insects can spread voraciously in a decidedly pest-like manner. Like any plant, infestations can be very severe. While color production was not originally designed to prevent infestation, it is one way to responsibly manage the prickly pear crop mortality.

Greenhouse cochineal production is also a good agricultural practice, as it provides a more regulated environment for quality control. The first step in color production is gently collecting the cochineal from the cacti. The insects are then dried and carminic acid color is extracted.

Peru is currently the largest producer of cochineal. Chile and Mexico also export cochineal. In Mexico, production and exportation of the natural color has enabled poverty alleviation and female literacy initiatives.

What’s Old is New Again: A Fresh Look at Carmine and Cochineal

Color from cochineal is found across a number of industries today, including food and beverages, inks, cosmetics, and pet food. The primary coloring component, carminic acid, is available in two different forms:

  • Cochineal Extract: the water-soluble extract of carminic acid from the cochineal
  • Carmine: carminic acid that has gone through a laking process

As food colors, cochineal extract and carmine are great natural colorants. With excellent heat, light, and acid stability, they provide shade options for a wide range of applications, ranging from beautiful pinks and bright reds to oranges and lavenders. It can be labeled as carmine or cochineal extract, dependent on the type.

From a performance standpoint, color from cochineal extract and carmine are certainly amongst the top natural color contenders, especially with its cost-in-use advantage. However, there are a couple drawbacks to the color, but the impact isn’t necessarily applicable to every brand or region. Color from cochineal is generally not considered Kosher or Halal, given its insect origin. At one point, the insect source of cochineal was under some scrutiny, but of lately, insects are an emerging food trend, and the acceptance of insect-based foods is growing.

Sensient polled consumers to better understand their feelings about insect-based color, and a little over 40% indicated insects as a viable source option for natural food color.

Color from insects could be more accepting over time, as insect-based proteins and ingredients make their way into more mainstream foods.

Another challenge with carmine specifically is its permissibility in certain EU applications. The presence of high levels of 4-Aminocarminic Acid (4-ACA), natural occurring ammonium from the cochineal’s protein, presents a regulatory concern in Europe, but fortunately low 4-ACA carmine options are available.

Lastly, carmine has historically been a natural color with severe price volatility. The harvesting of cochineal can be greatly impacted by weather and other issues, and there are only a few worldwide growing regions. While carmine is one of the more efficient natural color sources, the historical price volatility has understandably been a major source of frustration for manufacturers when it comes to forecasting and budgeting.

Improving Price Volatility

Our Sensient Food Colors Peru location enables us to participate earlier in the process flow of color from cochineal, so we can provide cost-effective carmine and cochineal options. We are working with our farmers to establish full traceability down to the individual cochineal plots. Sensient’s Agronomy team equips our partner farmers with the tools necessary to cultivate a steady supply of cochineal at fair market pricing, all while preserving the environment. By creating longer term partnerships, we can create a more stable price environment for food, beverage, and pet manufacturers. While every natural color crop brings different challenges to the table, our end goal with all of our vertically integrated colors is the same—more for less!

The opportunity to formulate with carmine and cochineal spans vastly across applications. With the bright, stable shades available, innovation can be endless and cost-effective with Sensient’s portfolio of vertically integrated cochineal and carmine options.

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